The Unofficial View of Tirana (88): Tale Of A Whale


The beak of the whale skeleton inside the Pyramid (Feb. 2012). Image courtesy of Pim van der Heiden.

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

In February 2012, I was working in Albania with students from the Interfaculty ArtScience of the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague together with local Albanian art students on the research project “Albanian Pyramids: Monuments for Late Capitalism,” dealing with art and politics in the public space of Tirana. At some point, one of the students, now a working artist in his own right, Pim van der Heiden, came back with some photographs from the inside (he had bribed the guard) of the Pyramid in the center of Tirana, the dilapidated former museum of the former communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha. In one of these pictures, one could discern the beak of a whale skeleton protruding from the darkness. We became immediately obsessed with this image. How and why had such a skeleton entered this derelict building? Little did I know that this whale would be the beginning of a friendship – and an insane undertaking.

By early March, the artistic research project had finished and most of the students had gone back to the Netherlands. Later that month, however, I stumbled upon a few images of the whale entering the Pyramid, dating from May 2011. It transpired that on the very day the whale had entered the Pyramid, some friends and activists from Aleanca LGBT had made a large graffiti on the Pyramid of a rainbow boot crushing the word “homophobia.” They had obviously taken the pictures of the whale, and the group of people carrying it, out of curiosity. But still the images failed to produce any satisfactory explanation. Now we only knew how it had entered, but still not why.

The whale skeleton entering the Pyramid (May 17, 2011). Image courtesy of Aleanca LGBT

In June 2013, I received an email from an artist until then unknown to me, named Armando Lulaj, proposing to collaborate on a theater piece involving a piano composition and textual fragments from the Wikileaks cables pertaining to Albania. I started to research his work, as I had never met him before in the Albanian cultural circuit – which is really not that large. I found the following excerpt of one of his video works, It Wears as It Grows, from 2011. And there it was, the whale skeleton that had mysteriously appeared more than a year ago on Pim’s photo of the Pyramid’s interior, carried through the streets of Tirana.

Production still ofIt Wears as It Grows (2011). Image courtesy of the artist. On the foreground Xheni Alushi, which I hadn’t met at the time, but who would become the assistant photographer for the Albanian Lapidar Survey.

Immediately I wrote back to him, sending along the material that I had gathered from Pim and my friends at Aleanca. It appeared now that what we had spotted in the Pyramid belonged to the first part of a trilogy of films dealing with the undigested traces of Albanian communism in contemporary society and politics. We started having coffees more regularly (that’s how everything begins) and I became increasingly acquainted with his work, which resonated well with my own preoccupations. In February 2014, I curated the exhibition “Uninspired Architecture: Public Space and Public Memory in Albania” together with Marco Mazzi in Empoli, Italy, including the second film of the trilogy, NEVER. In an interview, Armando explains the background of the work, which entailed the reconstruction of a giant petroglyph of the name “ENVER” on a mountain overlooking Berat, switching the two initial letters.

Since the new “socialist” government of Edi Rama that had come to power in September 2013 was still perceived at the time to care about the improvement of the situation of the arts and culture in Albania, including allowing more critical voices to appear at the foreground of cultural politics, there followed several conversations about Armando’s possible participation at the upcoming Venice Biennale in 2015. When the open call from the Ministry of Culture arrived, curator Marco Scotini applied with a proposal to finish the third part of the trilogy and show all three films, together with archival material, at the Albanian Pavilion under the title “Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems.” I have written about the direct aftermath of and response to his selection on this blog before, so I’ll skip that, but let it be said that (although in the past I have tried to give it the benefit of the doubt) the Ministry of Culture, being the official commissioner of the Albanian Pavilion, has handled his nomination as Albania’s representative to the Venice Biennale with anything but grace, if not utter incompetence.

In the months following Armando’s nomination in October 2014, the restless roaming of the whale through the streets of Tirana became increasingly a metaphor for the small team he had assembled around him, featuring in the bureaucratic nightmare that became the project of transporting the original whale skeleton to Venice.

Before I continue, the story of the whale skeleton is best told in the artist’s words himself:

On May 25, 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev visited Albania. Soviet plans to arm Enver Hoxha’s state with submarines and warships, positioning long and medium-range missiles along the Albanian coast, were devised to counter the US missile bases installed in Italy in order to control the Mediterranean. A large number of young Albanian sailors took part in military training under the Soviet army. In 1963, after the break in relations with the USSR, the Albanian navy, in paranoid fear of enemy attack, sighted an object that repeatedly appeared and vanished in the sea off the coast at Patok. Believing it to be a submarine, they fired. The object was in fact a cachalot (Physeter macrocephalus L.), the Mediterranean sperm whale. After being recovered, its remains were displayed in the Natural History Museum in Tirana, where it can still be found.

The skeleton in the film had been a styrofoam replica since it was easier to move, and also because the original skeleton, housed in the Natural History Museum in Tirana, could not be moved owing to the scaffolding around it which prevented the roof from collapsing.

The whale skeleton in the former building of the Natural History Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.

For the Venice Biennale, however, the idea was to exhibit the original skeleton in the Arsenale, and now that it had moved to a new building it had also become more accessible. However, the Museum, which curiously falls under the direct responsibility of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Tirana, had lost (thrown out?) all the archival material pertaining to its collection during its relocation, so there was literally not a snippet of information on the skeleton, its history, provenance, or basic data such weight, length, number of parts, etc. The only data we found was a single in the (new) inventory of the museum: “Whale Skeleton – 1.” So working on the budget that had been proposed to the Ministry of Culture, we had embarked on reconstructing the whale’s dossier, while also trying to figure out how to transport this fragile and time-worn construction safely to Italy. Although work on the Biennale project had started immediately after the official nomination in October 2014, the Ministry proved unwilling to finalize the contract until February 2015. As a result, the entire curatorial team and the film crew that shot the third part of trilogy, worked without payment and without any assurance that Ministry at some point would commit.

Plans and budgets were drafted to take the whale skeleton apart and transport it to Venice. These, however, were deemed too expensive by the Ministry, which proposed to facilitate the transport through a company supposedly allied to the current government, with Armando overlooking the process of disassembling and packaging the whale. All costs related to the transport of the whale were duly deducted from the budget and the contract was finally signed. By the time the Ministry of Culture had managed to contact the Ministry of Education and Sports to ask the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Tirana to ask the Director of the Museum of Natural Sciences to allow the shipment of the whale skeleton (which did not have any papers yet) to Venice and back, we had arrived at the end of March.

Finally, the actual work on the whale could start, even though in a flagrant breach of contract the Ministry of Culture had yet to transfer the first tranche of the production budget – everyone was still working for free. There was a palpable feeling that the Ministry wanted the project to fail and was betting on our collapse before they would transfer a single penny, although there was a glimmer of hope that the customs paperwork – which no one seemed to understand or have experience with – would somehow sort itself out on an intergovernmental level.

Deconstructing the whale. Images courtesy of the artist.


Unfortunately, as work on the whale advanced, it became clear that what the Ministry understood by “transport” was merely the physical aspect of the process: not only was the Ministry utterly uninformed about the necessary paperwork for the transportation of this peculiar object, it also seemed to be at best unwilling and at worst determined not to figure it out. In short, by the beginning of April not only had none of the required paperwork had been completed, it wasn’t even clear what paperwork was actually needed and how to obtain it. Usually, a commissioner of a project such as a national artistic representation to the Venice Biennale facilitates the selected curator and artist wherever possible, especially when complicated bureaucracy such as EU customs procedures for real skeletons of endangered species are involved. A phone call from a civil servant can work wonders or at least smooth out the bureaucratic path. The Ministry of Culture, however, viewed its entire relation to this project in wholly different, clientelistic terms; it was as if Marco Scotini and Armando Lulaj had won a tender and were “employed” by the state. Any responsibility (or assistance) not explicitly specified in the contract (which spoke about “facilitation”), was certainly not going to happen.

So with about a month to go before the opening of the Venice Biennale, with a whale disassembled and packaged for transport waiting in the Museum, the team embarked on a bureaucratic rollercoaster ride to get the right paperwork for an object without history, provenance, or dossier, across an EU border, for an art project. Perversely, the Ministry of Culture was now insisting that perfectly standard paperwork was “impossible” to obtain in Albania and that, in any case, this was “the responsibility of the curator and the artist.” Both statements turned out to be slightly warped representations of reality, because as it appeared after frantic days of phone calls and cross-city errands, all of the paperwork (which was substantial) was within the range of the possible. In a typical Albanian way, in which personal networks are mobilized to reach into all crevices of the bureaucracy, slowly the first papers factually establishing the existence of the whale that is at the center of this adventure started to surface. A passport (with “passport number 1”) was produced including the whale’s basic data and history and it was officially registered at the National Center of Inventorization of Cultural Heritage. Because the sperm whale is an endangered species, a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) clearance procedure was necessary, until it was discovered through easily accessible online sources that an exception in the lengthy procedure might be made for non-commercial art objects. This turned out to be the case, and it was confirmed both by the Albanian Ministry of Environment and the Italian Ministry of Economic Development. So through a fast-track procedure a traveling exhibition certificate was issued by Albanian Ministry of Environment and the Italian Corpo Forestale, whose immensely helpful office on Trieste smoothed out the importing of the whale once it arrived in the harbor. An ATA Carnet (international customs document), which was also deemed “impossible,” turned out only to be a few friendly phone calls away and was promptly released by the lovely people at the Union of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Albania (in spite of the insistence of the Ministry of Culture that such a document could not be obtained, even after we obtained it!). Memoranda and authorizations were signed and stamped by a plethora of organizations, bureaucracies, officers, and people all willing to contribute, often in their spare time and outside office hours, to the success of the project. At the end, there was a sense of vindication.

The two crates with the whale skeleton outside the Natural History Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.

On Friday, April 10, a truck of the transportation company organized by the Ministry of Culture arrived at the Natural History Museum to pick up the two crates of whale remains, minus a forklift to lift the heavy crates into the truck. “You were expected to bring your own forklift,” the driver claimed. So on Saturday Armando rented his own truck, and drove the whale to the company’s headquarters. The crates were offloaded onto the truck, the truck onto the ship to Trieste, and all customs documents were checked and stamped. Somewhat unsurprisingly by now, the customs broker turned out to be the son of one of the people who had created the ENVER sign in the mountains of Berat half a century ago (“the E and half of the R”) and was more than happy to assist in clearing this historical load. His friendly and curious suggestions: “Why did you do all this paperwork yourself? One phone call from the Ministry of Culture would have sufficed. There are special, fast-track procedures in place for projects of national relevance and objects that are considered to be national heritage. It would all have been so easy.” Naturally, the Ministry had never even made that phone call…

Offloading the whale in the port of Durrës. Image courtesy of the artist.

The whale on its way to the Arsenale in Venice. Image courtesy of the artist.

On Wednesday morning, April 16, the skeleton of the whale shot by the Albanian navy in 1963 off the coast of Patok floated into the Venice, on its way to the Albanian Pavilion in the Arsenale. At the time of the publication of this text, the Ministry of Culture will have allegedly wired, nearly two months late, the first tranche of the budget. The Albanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale will open on May 6. On the same day, seemingly in an attempt to steer the national media’s attention away from the many issues concerning cultural heritage, undigested histories, extralegal practices, and the complete absorption of the Albanian “sovereign state” into a network of “wars against terror” and “international monetary policies” it can neither control nor influence, a large international arts festival is poised to open in Tirana. But against this willful blindness, the whale skeleton will appear (if everything goes according to plan) in defiance of bureaucratic paralysis and corruption, as a reminder that it, too, is the result of a history of paranoia that always risks repeating itself.

About the Author:


Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular blog on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.